CSU grad student helps battle food insecurity among low-income older adults

Kali LeMaster knew immediately that Market Days! For Older Adults would have to adapt in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kali LeMaster Portrait
Kali LeMaster.

The Colorado State University Extension project was launched in 2019 to make healthy food more affordable and accessible for older adults who are low income in Larimer County. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the program offered participants $20 vouchers every week to purchase fruits and vegetables at the Larimer County Farmers’ Market. But now, the population it serves — a demographic particularly vulnerable to the virus — could no longer visit the market to get fresh produce and mingle.

So how could Market Days! sustain its mission?

“For me, it wasn’t about if we could do it, it was about how we could do it,” said LeMaster, program coordinator for Market Days! and a graduate student in the CSU Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

Adapting to the new normal

The answer turned out to be a reimagining of how Market Days! operates.

Volunteers pack fresh produce into bags to be delivered to Market Days! participants.
Volunteers pack fresh produce into bags to be delivered to Market Days! participants.

Instead of having participants come out to the market, LeMaster and her volunteers, many of whom are also CSU students, are now bringing the market to them. Since May, the team has been spending their Saturdays packing fresh produce and delivering them to the participants.

“I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to have to choose between getting a life-saving medication or eating regularly,” LeMaster said. “And that is a frightening reality for a huge percentage of Americans right now.”

Even before COVID-19 disrupted our lives, millions of older adults across the nation did not have consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. The repercussions of a global crisis have only highlighted the harsh realities of food insecurity and increased the number of people dealing daily with its challenges.

“Last year, we served about 140 participants in the program over 24 weeks,” said LeMaster. “This year, in the first five weeks alone, we have served 70 individuals. It is safe to say that we will most likely double or triple the number of participants this year.”

Each produce bag contains various kinds of delicious vegetables.

While the new model is a necessary change for everyone’s health, it’s one that comes at a cost. Previously for the participants of Market Days!, grocery shopping at the Larimer County Farmers’ Market was an experience. They would walk around the market with volunteers, hang out with therapy dogs, browse through recipes, and access educational resources on nutrition and healthy aging. The market was a space for them to socialize and connect with the community.

Now with the COVID-19 restrictions, LeMaster and her team are trying to turn that physical space into a virtual one. Some of the ideas that have been bouncing around include a virtual cooking class, art class, or having volunteers check in on participants by phone.

“That social interaction was what I felt really set our program apart from other farmers market programs,” LeMaster said. “I am optimistic that, with the assistance and collaboration of our various community partners, we will be able to find a solution.”

Making an impact and measuring it

LeMaster has long viewed nutrition as her best means to deliver nurture and give back to the community. That passion led her to get involved with Market Days! in 2019, when the program was still in its nascent stage. Back then, she was in the last year of her undergraduate career at CSU, majoring in nutrition and minoring in gerontology. This academic background enabled her to provide valuable insights that shaped the program. Later on, when offered a position to help run the program, she seized the opportunity.

LeMaster, together with the Market Days! volunteer team, has continued the program as the COVID-19 pandemic has threatened some of our most vulnerable community members.
LeMaster works with the Market Days! volunteer team at the Larimer County Farmers’ Market.

In her current role as a program coordinator, LeMaster works to recruit and train volunteers, serves as the primary contact point for all participants, and develops educational resources to share with the group. She also tracks metrics such as money spent and supplies used.

LeMaster said managing the program has tremendously deepened her understanding of the community and some of the critical issues it faces.

“It’s one thing to learn about how to plan, build, and execute a nutrition program in a classroom; it’s another to use the knowledge in real-world situations,” she said. “Service-learning is the best way to experience your education and can really direct you towards your best fit career.”

Now as a graduate student in nutrition and food science, LeMaster is invested in the program in a new way. She has been developing her graduate research to investigate the impact of nutrition programs like Market Days! on healthy aging. Specifically, she is attempting to quantify how Market Days! helps to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables among low-income older adults, and at the same time decrease their social loneliness. Through this study, she hopes to shed light on ways to create systemic, sustainable changes in communities.

If the impact can be tangibly demonstrated through research, it could also contribute to the longevity of these nutrition programs and help secure future funding. “If that happens to Market Days!, I would be over the moon with happiness,” she said.

Service-Learning Student Award

LeMaster’s dedication to providing food security for older adults and finding pathways for sustainable behavioral change has earned her applause and recognition.

Recently, she received the Exceptional Achievement in Service-Learning Student Award as part of the Celebrate! Colorado State Awards, an annual tradition at CSU to recognize excellence across the campus community in teaching, research, and community engagement.

Brittney Sly, LeMaster’s supervisor and one of her award nominators, speaks highly of her. “Kali is such a motivated and compassionate individual. It’s not surprising that the Market Days! project is such a successful endeavor, as she has nurtured it from the beginning.”

For LeMaster, this award further fuels her confidence and dedication to advance the program.

“We are just starting out, and I don’t have a template to follow since Market Days! is so unique. Getting this award shows that I am making a difference, and that really motivates me to keep the program moving forward,” LeMaster said. “I walk past that award every morning, and it reminds me to give my best every day.”

Community partners of Market Days! For Older Adults include Senior Access Points of Larimer County, Partnership for Age-Friendly Communities, Office on Aging Services, Volunteers of America, UCHealth Aspen Club, and Housing Catalyst.

The Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.